post by Bill Gardner
This is an answer to Paul's thoughtful post. To set this discussion up, let's stipulate that a non-smoking policy is in the interest of the company and its current employees because there are good data showing that non-smokers are more productive and (for employers offering insurance) cost less because of their better health. (I believe these assertions are true, but I have no first hand acquaintance with the data.)
Paul argues, with some justice, that smokers are often poor, highly stressed, and highly addicted. He quotes Michael Marmot's account of smoking among the poor to make the point that for some, not-smoking is a difficult choice. (He does not claim that it is an impossible choice.)
Consider, however, that employers also preferentially hire workers with more skills or education. Like stopping smoking, getting skilled or educated is much harder for the poor and highly stressed. Are employers acting unethically when they do this? I think employers should be able to hire selectively in pursuit of legitimate business goals unless there are strong justice arguments for non-discrimination.
Paul notes that
Lots of "lifestyle choices" have effects on health care costs. A provocative example I cite in the classroom is a employee's choice to have a child. ...putting the examples side by side makes for a useful thought experiment: do we have the same intuitions in each case about whether it's OK to refuse to hire the potentially health-costly applicant? If not, why not? If it is because having children is a "respectable" choice while smoking is not, then I would urge that we spend more time thinking about passages like Marmot's, as well as all the information we have about how people become smokers and what makes it so hard for them to stop.
First, although I value childrearing and loathe smoking, the "respectability" of these practices is not the point. Rather, as an employer, I highly value the mission of my company and I want to help it succeed. That doesn't mean, however, that I would not accept a compromise to achieve a national goal.
Paul's example here is great: Canada has much better maternity benefits than the US. I support this, even though providing these benefits can be costly for employers (you can hire a woman and learn in your first post-hiring interview that she is pregnant, and that you will be paying for a year's leave). I support Canadian maternity and paternity benefits because there are strong reasons to ask employers to accept these costs. First, gender equity contributes greatly to the justice of Canadian society -- is the same true for equity between smokers and non-smokers? Second, one can argue that by remvoing a barrier to the advancement of women, Canada gets much better use of female human capital than the US does. Similarly, Canadian children benefit greatly from these policies. Given the spill-over effects of increased female human capital and of better-nurtured children, all Canadians benefit from family policies. Can a similar case be made for smoking?
Finally, Paul suggests in the comments to his post that employers could hire smoking workers and offer them smoking cessation programs. That's a good idea, but wouldn't it be easier and better to have smoking cessation programs supplied by the government, and freely available to everyone, employed or not?